Starring: Alessandro Preziosi, Raffaella Rea, Assumpta Serna
Director: Antonio Frazzi
Following on from their excellent series of Nordic Noir releases, Arrow now bring us this Italian-made crime drama, as seen on BBC4. Set during the era of Mussolini and just afterwards, these four feature-length episodes (based on the novels by Carlo Lucarelli) serve up all the traditional pleasures of the detective show but also do much more with the genre.
The first episode is set in 1938 and takes place in the luxe seaside resort of Rimini. When the dead body of a prostitute turns up on the beach near Mussolini’s holiday home, the evidence points to a well-connected count as the culprit and the authorities begin a concerted cover-up. Inspector De Luca, an honest, conscientious copper (although not so strait-laced that he’s above bedding the occasional prime suspect) is having none of it and sets about trying to discover exactly what happened. Repressed by his superiors, roughed up by Fascist thugs and distracted by the count’s sultry sexpot of a wife (played by the stunning Kasia Smutniak), De Luca has a lot to contend with. Even without the cover-up, though, it’s no easy task extracting witness testimony from glassy-eyed zealots, or establishing facts in an atmosphere where the truth is whatever Il Duce says that morning. And that he’s expected to conduct his investigations on a bicycle says everything you need to know about the priority given to the rule of law under Mussolini.
It’s an extremely stylish, good-looking opener, with its plot revolving around glamorous aristos with dirty secrets and its gorgeous locations and costumes. But what’s really striking is the way in which, rather that sticking to what would probably have been a successful formula, the show switches things up from episode to episode.
In a second instalment, we’re in a bomb-ravaged Bologna in 1945, at the tail-end of the war, while in the fourth it’s 1948, general election year, Christian Democrats versus Communists, and someone’s murdering the latter, with the authorities once again intent on turning a blind eye.
All of these episodes are very good, but the third one is simply outstanding. Here we’re in English Patient territory. Set in 1945 after the Allied invasion, it sees De Luca, fearful of reprisals haven’t learnt that he’s on a hit list, incognito and on the run with an unsavoury bunch of Fascist goons. He falls into the hands of partisans in a small town in the Apennines and is pressed into investigating the murder of a much-loved, saint-like local character – an investigation which inflames divisions in the town between those who want to use the end of the war to settle old scores and those who want to build a prosperous future. With more than a whiff of Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Strategem, it’s a powerfully moody piece of work strong enough to have warranted a standalone feature movie release.
Throughout, Antonio Frazzi directs with great flair, and Andrea Guerra’s romantically menacing scores add to the suspense. Together, the series provides snapshots of Italy over a turbulent ten year period, and it vividly brings to life the social history of the times: the various squabbling factions, the way you weren’t supposed to shake hands because it was alleged to be unhygienic, the fact that there was such a thing as the Italian SS, the lodging house that serves cat on the menu. And with its parade of femmes fatales (particularly Kasia Smutniak, whose performance, both seductive and cutting, wafting perfume and lacy lingerie marks her out as a future leading lady of note) and its handsome, pencil moustache-sporting protagonist, it’s also a series dripping with la dolca vita. Perfect viewing for detective story fans and Italophiles alike.